Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Tying Knots

One of the dangers of living in the Northwest is that you occasionally attend a school fundraiser and become the winning bidder on a climb to the summit of Mt. Hood. Now I have climbed a fair number of mountains in my day, but none technical and only one recently. Thus, after the semester ended, I found myself in the unusual role of student.  Mine was not a class about law or writing or education; rather, this was a class about tying knots, which I know nearly nothing about.

Don’t get me wrong: I have been tying knots for well over forty years. Well, actually, one knot and it involves bunny ears, but if needed, I can even tie it in a double knot! However, in this class, we were not being asked to tie knots that will keep on your Disney princess tennis shoes with red flashing lights as you run across the playground. These were life-saving knots. The kind that get you out of crevasses and keep you from falling off cliffs. Knots you want to--need to--know how to tie in the dark without thinking. Prusiks. Clove lines. Bow hitches. Double eights.

And so there I sat with one of my climbing partners to my left, and the other to my right. Both had a vested interest in my mastery of these skills. Indeed, their life might depend on it. No longer the one in charge, I was suddenly a student well outside of my comfort zone learning a high stakes skill that I needed to master with peers watching and evaluating. The pressure was on.

The course was well designed. The instructors sent us a manual before class, listed online demonstrations to watch, went over a quick PowerPoint in class, and then broke us into small peer groups  of 3-5 learners, plus one instructor, and handed us each a length of climbing rope to practice and demonstrate our knot-tying mastery. Our instructor quickly tied a couple of the assigned knots and then directed us to try. I panicked.

Here it was seven o’clock at night. I had not had dinner. I had worked all day. I had just met a publication deadline, returned from a business trip, and closed out the school year. I had two young children at home and not enough sleep. I was driving over two hours roundtrip at night to attend this class. I had not done my homework and was running on fumes. And it hit me.

The tables were turned. All year long I had provided my students with a variety of resources, assigned them work to support their learning, delivered content in multiple settings with a variety of media. I had created opportunities to work in different group sizes, and yet, when it came time to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, to apply their knowledge, they would sometimes look at me hungry, exhausted, and confused like they had no idea what they were doing.

Humbled, I meekly handed my rope back to the instructor and asked him if he could demonstrate how to tie just one knot, and this time more slowly. He did, but not nearly slowly enough. I still didn’t get it. I tried, but he quickly untied my jumble of climbing rope, and directed me to watch him again. He quickly tied it so fast that I could not break down all of the steps. I tried again, but it was clear I had failed. I asked him if he could let me tie the knot and coach me through it one step at a time. He agreed, but after the second step took the rope back and quickly tied it again. At this point, all of my teammates were done with this knot and were ready to move on.

He offered to teach me a different method for tying the knot for people "who struggled." I was being offered remedial knot-tying! "No!" I insisted, and then I dropped the H-bomb in a moment of panic and defensiveness. I had a doctorate from Harvard, and if they just gave me a few more minutes, I could catch up. One of my peers, reached out to assure me. She was a D.O., but this is different, she said.

The instructor suddenly felt uncomfortable and said that now he was intimidated. He was obviously doing something wrong. I assured him that it was my fault: I hadn’t done my homework. I just needed him to slow down and coach me through each step of the tying of the knot, which he did. Once we broke it down step-by-step, with me (the learner) as actor, we both identified what I was doing wrong. Like so many things in life, I had been overcomplicating the knot. Rather than tie it once, I was tying it twice, perceiving it as more complex than it really was. The problem was suddenly untangled.

After the class took a break and I grabbed a quick bite to eat, I quietly slipped into a different group, where I could escape the shadow of my double figure-eight failure and start fresh with a new instructor. I eventually mastered all five knots, and developed such a great rapport with my second teacher (who knew nothing about my near miss with remedial knot tying instruction) that after our field training, he offered to join us on our climb up Mt. Hood. Perhaps he just loves climbing mountains, or maybe, although he witnessed how much I learned in class, he also saw how much I do not know, how much I still have to learn, and knows that some students still need teachers to be ready to support and watch over them, even after class ends.

Teaching and Pedagogy, Travel | Permalink


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